Butterflies Don’t Innovate: The Real Innovation Challenge for Market Research.

Every so often you will see a discussion where we market researchers, with help from the odd client, beat ourselves up about how lacking in innovation we’ve supposedly become, and how conservative we seem to be as an industry. I’m not quite sure where I stand on the debate about how conservative MR people are, but I’m increasingly sure that we often miss the point about what “innovation” in MR really is, and why it matters.

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My view is that far from being super conservative, most researchers are fascinated by “trends” and new ideas. But too often we mistake “trend-following” for “innovation”. We (and I include myself in this) love to discuss all the latest technologies, techniques and re-packaged jargon,  so we flit like butterflies from one new idea to another, never quite developing their potential or integrating the new techniques with old ones.

It’s not “innovation” we lack, it’s “implementation”. David took that point up in a post last year (see: Innovate  or Ossify) suggesting that the biggest issue is not lack of  innovative ideas per se, as a lack of the right people and skill sets to turn ideas into action.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my market research career developing and implementing new products and services. I like new methods, ideas, techniques and gadgets. Right now in fact, David and I are providing support to a wonderful high-tech start-up which combines new theories with new software and methods that might well make a huge difference to how we diagnose consumer emotions.

But, despite this personal commitment to “newness” and technology, I am not a fan of a persistent belief in our industry that “innovative” = “new” and in particular that to be innovative you need to espouse a brand new technology, theory or technique.

As an example, almost all the numerous discussions of “New MR” focus on how they  replace or are massively superior to all the old ways – few focus on exactly how (e.g.) social media research might supplement conventional qualitative work,  or MROC’s could be integrated with traditional trackers. For understandable reasons when MR agencies introduce new services they focus on the “easy, exciting” bit – what’s good about the new features they bring to market. But we often leave out the “hard but really clever stuff” that’s important to clients if we want them to support innovation: ideas about how client’s can integrate these new concepts into current research processes, or on helping clients develop applications that synthesise new data sources with old to produce something genuinely new.

If failure to consider the potential of integrating/synthesising across methodologies and theories is one failure in our approach to innovation, the other is – paradoxically- our almost stunning failure to look backwards. Yes, we spend time (often too much) presenting long trend-lines to clients, but in my view a huge amount of unrealised value is hidden in our data-bases.

Some years ago I presented to our senior management an idea, which in essence was simply to let a team of experienced Customised/Panel researchers “loose” to dig around and try and produce integrated reports drawing on information synthesised from a range of in-house sources (consumer panel, sales data, tracking surveys etc.). Obviously I elaborated on what they’d be looking for, but the core concept was that a few good minds, given time, the right software and some good data could generate a vast return from data that would otherwise remain massively under-utilised. For various reasons (the usual mixture of good and bad), this idea was not taken up, but I remain convinced that most of the bigger MR companies (and even the mid-sized ones) could realise millions of dollars by a more “innovative” approach to exploring their existing data. Even smaller companies would, I believe, generate good returns and improved customer satisfaction just by every so often creatively combining and re-exploring old studies.

The problem of course is that I am talking here about “innovation” based on cleverer use of people and existing data.  It’s about finding the new gem hidden in the old, not about totally new research methods or technology and so it’s not terribly sexy. Being brainpower dependent it also requires taking a risk on either bringing in outside consultants or redeploying your own, already busy, senior staff. Yet, for clients, more creative and systematic approaches to analysing existing information might well count as just the kind of innovation they’d appreciate in these tough times.

Of course we do need a stream of new models, technologies etc. to keep our industry vibrant. But we also need to do more to really explore the full  potential of these new ideas. Too often clients see us as approaching them with fancy new techniques that, in the end, only deliver marginal improvements in terms of marketing actionabiilty. No wonder clients become conservative, and once they have settled on one research approach are loath to change.

4 Responses to Butterflies Don’t Innovate: The Real Innovation Challenge for Market Research.

  1. Cathy Harrison says:

    This is an excellent post Alastair – I agree and believe the biggest opportunity for MR to make an impact is to better integrate knowledge across functions/business units. Sometimes fear of losing ‘ownership’ overshadows what is best for the company at large.

    • Alastair Gordon says:

      Thanks Cathy, I agree that in some cases people trying to maintain their own little empires is an issue. But another issue is that senior people get so busy with “everyday” projects/management etc., that the sheer time and energy involved in working out ways to synthesise/integrate across different methods/units seems very burdensome. This is why I think that generating such innovation can’t be a “part-time” activity and needs to be treated in same way as a company treats any major new initiative: it needs specific resource and support to generate the high margin returns that are possible.

  2. AMEN! What a great post. I agree that the MR world does not lack innovative ideas. What we lack are the right visionary’s with the ability to ship ideas that actually solve a problem for our clients. Just because your product is new and shiny and innovative, if it’s an “Oracle of the Obvious”, smart clients will see right through it. The data never lies :)

    Exploring new ways to conduct research is important but it doesn’t hurt or cost much to explore and enhance what we have within our current methods.

    Thanks again!

    • Alastair Gordon says:

      Absolutely Andre. To me the best MR R&D teams have been ones that combine some “big idea” people, with highly competent “enablers”, both internal (operations, training etc.) and external (marketing, client adaptation etc.). The “new shiny” idea as you call it is only the first step in the innovation process.

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